University forum to tackle 'Inner Life of Animals'

BLACKSBURG, Va., Oct. 29, 2009 – Choices and Challenges, an annual forum at Virginia Tech with a reputation for tackling controversial issues, will deliberate on "The Inner Life of Animals" in a daylong series of panels and discussions on Nov. 5.

The main panel will begin at 11 a.m. at the Lyric Theatre in downtown Blacksburg with background starting at 9:30 a.m. and follow-up at 2:30 p.m. sessions to be held in the in the Graduate Life Center at Donaldson Brown. The forum is open to the public at no charge.

This year’s forum will focus on scientific, ethical, philosophical, and social issues surrounding “animal mind,” as inspired by the work of Charles Darwin. Since Darwin’s pioneering work that culminated with the1872 book titled, “The Expression of Emotions in Man and the Animals,” different schools of scientific thought have staked positions about animal mind across the entire spectrum: from viewing animals as mere automatons to understanding animals as conscious beings.

“Whether we regard animals as objects to be used, or subjects to be respected, is intimately connected with our knowledge of their cognitive capacities and emotional experiences,” said Eileen Crist, one of the forum’s organizers and associate professor at Virginia Tech in the Department of Science and Technology in Society. “Scientific knowledge about the minds of animals does affect our relationship with animals, both wild and domestic.”

“This year's forum brings together an exciting array of scholars to address questions about the inner workings of the animal mind," said Saul Halfon, associate professor in science and technology in society. "What do animals think? What do animals feel? Are these questions relevant to how we do and should treat animals? And, are they relevant for how we think of ourselves in the world?"

The main panel features five members representating a range of recognized authorities discussing scientific and ethical dimensions of animal mind. Gregg Mitman is the director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the author of Reel Nature: America’s Romance with Wildlife on Film. He is joined by one of the world’s leading experts in animal behavior, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University, James L. Gould. Mark Bekoff is a co-founder of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; he has written over 200 articles and edited many books including the Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare. The founder and director of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the New York Aquarium of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Diana Ross has had her research featured on television shows including National Geographic’s “Wild Kingdom” and “The Today Show.” Finally, H. Lyn Miles is a primatologist whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Time Magazine, and in documentaries on the Discovery Channel, A&E, and Animal Planet.

The moderator for the event is Eugene Linden, a writer on the subjects of technology, the environment, and humanity’s relationship with the natural world.

Gyorgyi Voros, an English department faculty member who will lead a follow-up session, said “only now are we beginning to recognize how gravely we have underestimated animals. Science shows us that in every realm – in cognition, emotion, communication, social organization, and individuation – animals are far more complex than we ever thought.”

Sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and organized by science and technology in society, Choices and Challenges is an award-winning public forum series that has been exploring the social and ethical dimensions of science and technology since 1985. The project seeks to impart knowledge and encourage discussion between scientists, field experts, writers, historians, students, and the community. For more information, visit the website or contact Brandiff Caron, Halfon, or Crist.

The Choices and Challenges forum topic dovetails with other events focusing on Darwin in honor of the 200th anniversary of his birth. Other opportunities include Living Darwin and Singing Darwin.

An exhibition and Web-streamed, Internet 2.0 performance, “Singing Darwin: A New Media Exhibition on the 150th Anniversary of the Publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species is an original, new-media project that engages a network of artists, scientists, and scholars. Directed and produced by Burch-Brown, the exhibition will be at the Armory Gallery throughout November, culminating in a 24-hour live and cyber event from Nov. 23 at 7 p.m. to Nov. 24 at 7 p.m. coinciding with the actual publication date of On the Origin of the Species.

"Celebration of Darwin: a Conference on Darwin's Origin," will be held on Nov. 4 at the Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center. Darwin scholars Philip Kitcher, Frank Sulloway, and Robert Richards are the featured speakers in the morning with three parallel sessions of submitted papers in the afternoon. There is a registration fee. Find registration information online.

Written by Whitney Webb. Webb, of Riner, Va., is a senior majoring in English in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.